Budget derailed? Florida weighs train, schools

With big plans for a bullet train - and vast pre-K programs to fund - the state struggles to balance its budget.

Two years ago, Florida voters amended the state constitution to require the Legislature to finance and construct a state-wide high-speed rail network.

Even after the voters had spoken, skeptics continued to question how the state would pay for such an expensive and futuristic transportation system.

Now, two years later, those same voices have grown even louder following passage of two more expensive amendments to Florida's constitution, mandating lower class sizes in all public schools and requiring establishment of a pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in the state.

This "universal preschool" plan is one of the most ambitious pre-K efforts undertaken by a state. Florida, meanwhile, could also find itself emerging as a transportation innovator and leader, if an Orlando bullet train materializes. Several states, as well as major cities, are considering such high-speed rail projects.

But as Florida lawmakers find themselves in the same circumstances facing other states as they struggle to balance budget priorities amid an economic slump, it remains unclear whether the estimated $1 billion to $2 billion first phase of the rail project will be elbowed aside in a battle over scarce dollars.

"Some might argue that because of the new education mandates, there won't be enough money to do both [education and rail projects]," says Steve Polzin, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "But all that is speculation," he says. "None of the legislators have taken positions in terms of how they would react or respond to that."

Different outlooks

High-speed rail supporters insist that their pet project will move forward. "I don't think high-speed rail is in danger at all," says C.C. "Doc" Dockery, who personally spearheaded the campaign for the rail ballot initiative in 2000 and who now sits on the 10-member Florida High-Speed Rail Authority, which is overseeing the project.

Mr. Dockery says that the education initiatives will be financed through the state's general revenue fund, while the high-speed rail project will be supported through the state's transportation trust fund. "When you look at all the proposals and see where the funding must come from, you will see that they don't affect each other at all," he says.

Others aren't so sure. Some analysts say state lawmakers may be tempted to raid the transportation trust fund to avoid having to raise taxes and cut other state programs to finance the anticipated $3 billion per-year class-size program and the $400 million per-year pre-K program.

"It is still something of a mystery about how we are going to deal with it," says Dominic Calabro, president of Florida Tax Watch. He says a key to the success of the rail project will be the extent of private-sector capital lined up for the plan. Matching federal transportation aid will also be important, Mr. Calabro says.

In 2000, 53 percent of Florida voters approved the rail ballot initiative calling for construction of a high-speed bullet-train network linking Florida's five major urban centers. The ballot question did not discuss the potential cost of the project, which some analysts say could approach $40 billion for a statewide rail system. But supporters say that the rail network can be built piece by piece, with expansion coming only after initial sections demonstrate their profitability.

The first leg of the network is slated to run from Orlando International Airport to Tampa. But even this is controversial. A heated local debate has broken out over whether the line should run first to Disney World or stop instead at Orlando's convention center and International Drive tourist area.

Eventually, plans call for extending the network to Miami, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee, the state capital.

Last year, a bill was introduced in the state Senate seeking to send the rail issue back to voters after laying out the potential cost of the project. The bill has not made it out of committee.

Full steam ahead?

In the meantime, the high-speed rail authority has been moving forward to meet its first constitutionally imposed deadline that a construction contract be awarded by November 2003. The authority has issued a request for bids and has recently released a survey of potential ridership on the Orlando to Tampa leg of the rail.

Supporters hail the survey results as proof that the project will pay for itself. "The ridership figures demonstrate what we've thought to be true all along, that we have a viable project," says Dockery.

Calabro of Florida Tax Watch is less certain. "I'm not sure whether the ridership will be there from beginning to end," he says. "We really don't know yet."

Other analysts say that ridership figures alone are only half the equation to run a successful railroad. Equally important are the costs of operating the system, these analysts say. Those costs will be calculated by companies bidding to build and operate the rail system.

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